If you're only familiar with his reputation, you might look at Regan Upshaw as a modern-day football stereotype. The gold teeth. The three pitbulls. Fines for spitting. Penalties for late hits.
"Thug," you might think, and dismiss him out of hand.
But you'd be wrong if you did. It isn't--and he isn't--that simple.
Let him explain it: "I play aggressive," Upshaw said. "When I go out there on the field, I'm trying to knock the guy out in front of me. Either he's going to knock me out, or I'm going to knock him out. That's how I play. And sometimes people take that aggressiveness and think it's something it's not."
What it is, is drive.
Upshaw's exhibited it his whole life. He was active his entire childhood: "I found out early we had to keep this boy busy all the time," said his mother, "and we did, at sports, at music [violin, cello, trombone, tuba], at everything, including church in which he practically grew up, me being the daughter of an Albany, Ga., preacher."
Upshaw's mother, Rosalyn Morgan-Upshaw, is a middle/high school principal in Hercules, CA, a classical musician and choir director who holds two master's degrees. His father, Dr. Charles Upshaw, is chief of staff to the executive vice chancellor and provost at the University of California at Berkeley.
They wanted to channel his unbelievable energy--and it was sports that really got young Regan excited. "When he was three years old," said Morgan-Upshaw, "I said if everything he needed to know was put on a ball, he'd be a genius. When we found the right ball, we were in business."
But he was just as driven to succeed academically. In high school, Upshaw was serious enough about his academics that he decided to skip sports in ninth grade in order to concentrate on his studies. He ended up with a listing in "Who's Who in American High School Students."
In tenth grade, he began his football career, and the high motor that marked everything he did would carry the defensive end from high school All-American (75 tackles his senior year) to highly-touted recruit to the starting lineup by his third game as a freshman at Cal to All-Pac 10 honors that same year. And as a freshman he made All-Academic Pac-10, was named Most Valuable Freshman, and won an award for spending more time than anyone at the study table. He concluded his three-year college career with 4.6 speed and 28 sacks.
Why does he do it? He's not concerned about what others think, that's for sure. "It's not about respect," he said. Simply, "it's about winning."
It is his drive that sets Upshaw apart--and it's something that coaches and others who have known him from boyhood to veteran NFL player marvel at. He was an obsessive weight trainer in college, lifting 340 pounds before his freshman year and improving that to 400 as a sophomore and 425 as a junior. "You can count the days I haven't been in the weight room, count the number of times I didn't run," he said at the time. "You may have a God-given talent, but you've got to enhance that talent to the best of your capabilities."
"You have to be intense, high-motored, fast, strong, going full-speed all the time," said the Bears' DC Artie Gigantino. "And Upshaw is all of the above. He's like Jerry Rice, who's not only a great athlete but also prepares to be a great athlete."
Upshaw was drafted number 12 over all by the Buccaneers, defensive guru and new coach Tony Dungy's first pick ever as a head coach. But his rookie season still proved tough for the kid with the high motor. He was thrown into the starting lineup when Chidi Ahanotu was injured, he started all sixteen games but finished the season with only four sacks and 25 tackles.
He had that drive, but he was spinning his wheels, unsure how to handle NFL-caliber left tackles, getting mocked as he missed easy tackles when he tried for the kill shot. And he got into fights (as he had in high school) and made stupid penalties when his motor was red-lined. "When I'm all red and jumping around, I'm wild," Upshaw said. "And when I'm wild, I could pop ... jump off-sides, punch somebody in the pile."
In the post-season after his rookie year, he decided to get his head on straight and he reconnected with his faith. Out with the high life and in with his family life; he spent more time with his wife and daughter. In 1997 and 1998, he listened to Sapp and worked on his fundamentals, recording 14.5 sacks in the two years.
But in 1999, Upshaw lost his starting job to Steve White during training camp. And then as the season progressed, Marcus Jones' strong performances at both end spots put him ahead of Upshaw on the depth chart. Insisting that Upshaw's play wasn't to blame (that it was the superior play by the other linemen), the Bucs traded him to the Jacksonville Jaguars for a conditional pick. The Jags took over Upshaw's contract and he coasted the rest of the season primarily as a special teamer.
In March of 2000, a new chapter in the life of Regan Upshaw began--he signed with the Raiders. DC Chuck Bresnihan was happy to have him on the team. Upshaw set an example by almost always being the last player out of the weight room before lunch. "He brings that competition level up," Bresnahan said. "I've seen all three of those guys (DEs Bryant, Johnstone and Upshaw) get better because of the work habits he brings to the field."
But the Upshaw drive would start getting him into trouble, as well. He had never completely shed that undisciplined play that had marked him as a rookie, and playing for the Raiders only magnified his reputation. Slightly dirty play was a hallmark of the team.
"The Raider mystique is the tough-guy mystique," said Upshaw during their Super Bowl run in January 2002. "The Raiders organization is probably one of the last organizations that accepts aggressive football players. A lot of football teams now, they want the new NFL, per se. They want tame tigers, tame lions; good public-persona guys, on and off the field, but not necessarily hard-nosed football players.
"We're hard-nosed football players. We've got some good-persona guys, and they're up front talking. But we've also got some trained killers in the locker room."
Upshaw was fined $7,500 in September 2000 for a late hit on San Diego QB Ryan Leaf. And in December, he spat in the face of Pittsburgh punter Josh Miller, for which he received an almost unheard-of fine of an entire game check, more than $29,000.
In 2002, however, things changed again--Upshaw tore his ACL in a minicamp in June. He was expected to be out for the season--and yet, he wouldn't let it stop him. "It was a kick in the stomach for about 10 minutes," Upshaw said at the time. "Then I looked at my situation, and it was like, 'OK, what can I do here? What are my options?' My only option is to rehab. I'm on a rehab mission now."
And he went at his rehab with a gusto, and with such success that he was reactivated in late November, a full month earlier than anticipated. He was eased back into the lineup and became a starter again while the Raiders were making their run through the playoffs to the Super Bowl. [Curiously, soon after being activated he was fined $87,000 by the team for an undisclosed "discipline-related" incident--yet he was still in the lineup.]
A month after the Raiders' defeat in Super Bowl XXXVII, Upshaw was cut from the Raiders for salary-cap reasons. He was quickly snatched up by the Redskins during their focused assault on the free-agent market. Upshaw had been listed third in their scouting book, behind Hugh Douglas and Vonnie Holliday, and they moved quickly to sign him. They were looking for some bite on the defensive line.
Though he's the presumptive starter at right end, Upshaw is competing with legendary DE Bruce Smith, and coach Steve Spurrier wants some healthy competition for the position. Upshaw's not concerned with whether he starts or not. "You know what, they brought me in to start," he said. "But being in this game so long, if you throw me in there, I'll play. I'm going to give 100 percent, whether it's at right end, left end, [defensive tackle] or nose tackle. If I get 30 plays, I'm going to work hard and make plays. And if I get 50 plays, I'm going to work hard and make plays."
"He has shown that he cannot go half speed," said defensive line coach Robert Nunn about Upshaw. "We try to go half-speed drills, and it just is not in him. He's got to go full speed. That guy's got a motor, a tremendous motor."
And perhaps as a fiery emotional leader of the defense, he can help fill the gap left by DT Daryl Gardener's departure.
"He brings a lot of energy to the group, a lot of energy to the classroom," Nunn said. "We're looking forward to that. One guy can make a lot of difference."
Hard work. Drive. That motor. They've been his calling card his entire athletic career.